|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
On February 13, 2018, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Ministerhad approved procurement of 5,719 sniper rifles for the Army and Air Force at an estimated cost of 982 crore from the global market under the 'Buy Global' categorisation, the ammunition for which will be initially procured and subsequently manufactured in India. Media had then reported that the new 8.6mm sniper rifles, with an effective kill range of 1,200m, will replace the vintage 7.62mm Dragunov sniper rifles with 800m range that were acquired from Russia in 1990. Above was after the hierarchy woke up from its reverie with periodic incidents of Pakistani snipers targeting Army and BSF personnel, both astride the LoC and IB. Pakistan army is using US-made Remington modular rifles with effective range up to 1,000m plus. In addition, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists have been equipped with M4 carbines with telescope that can hit targets up to 500-600m with precision.
During DefExpo 2018, more than five Indian firms displayed plans and joint ventures (JVs) for developing assault rifles and sniper rifles in use by militaries of US, UK and some other western countries under 'Make in India'. Media reports stated that small arms, assault rifles and sniper rifles manufactured by Desert Tech of USA, Lewis Machine & Tool Company (LMT), and Steyr Mannlicher of Austria will be made indigenously by Indian partners under transfer of technology (ToT). CBC, world's largest ammunition maker also disclosed plans to shift its entire line to India. But a MoD official had then stated, "It would take a long time for these weapons to be inducted into the Indian Army because procurement procedures are cumbersome". This, after yearly propaganda year after year, that procurement procedures have been simplified. In January 2019, reports emerged that emergency purchase of a "very small number" of sniper rifles for troops deployed on the LoC is underway with kill range of 1500-1800m under Northern Army Commander's Special Financial Powers, and that the larger procurement of quantity 5719 new 8.6mm sniper rifles to equip all 382 infantry battalions (each battalion is authorised 10 sniper rifles) will take "another couple of years". In March 2019, Northern Command procured two new advanced sniper rifles (Barrett M95 .50 BMG and Beretta Scorpio TGT 'Victrix') with .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges under Army Commander's Special Financial Powers. However, the larger procurement of 5,719 sniper rifles has hit a roadblock.
In December 2018, MoD had invited responses from global manufacturers to its request for information (RFI) for 5,719 8.6mm sniper rifles and 10.2 million rounds of ammunition for the Army and IAF in a deal worth $150 million (INR 1067 crore). Of 20 firms, some 12-13 firms responded, including Sako of Finland, H-S Precision of the US, Steelcore Designs Limited of the UK, PGM Precision of France, and Punj Lloyd Raksha Systems, a joint venture between Indian defence conglomerate Punj Lloyd and Israel Weapons Industries. However, evaluators found that none had the capability to manufacture the sniper ammunition.
Another report said that the Para (SF) units, presently holding Israeli Galil sniper rifles, are being equipped with Finnish Sako rifles with kill range of around 2,000m plus but this too stands stymied for the same reasons. But why did MoD not ensure that the RFI included ascertaining which ammunition these sniper rifles fire, whether the firms manufacture it and whether they can supply the same? Who is accountable for this lapse, lack of accountability or deliberate mischief? Another report that licensed manufacture of five million rounds of .338 Lapua Magnum ammunition under ToT to state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and private-sector manufacturers. For procuring the sniper rifles, MoD is reportedly contemplating options of floating two separate RFIs (one for procuring sniper rifles and the other for ammunition) or tweak the existing RFI to include a clause that the interested firms should manufacture ammunition as well, and also subsequently transfer the technology to India. Both these options, if true, are stupid. Taking the latter first, why should these firms who are marketing worldwide without manufacturing sniper ammunition, agree to such a request? Second, where is the need to issue two fresh RFI – one for sniper rifles and one for ammunition, when the RFI for sniper rifles is already responded to?If the report about a JV for licensed manufacture of .338 Lapua Magnum in India is correct, certainly that needs to be pursued with speed. But there is no need to delay trials of sniper rifles by firms that have already responded to the RFI. They only need to confirm that sniper rifles offered by them are compatible with .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges, which without doubt they all will. For the trials, .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges already imported by Northern Command could be used, since requirement would not be large considering all these weapons are bolt-action single-shot. If need be, Northern Command could be asked to procure additional .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges for the trials. Another alternative is to ask the firms offering the sniper rifles to bring a specified number of .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges for the trials, which they should gladly agree to. After all, they could not be marketing their weapons to militaries without firing. Yet another option is to ask Northern Command to undertake comprehensive trials with the already imported Barrett M95 .50 BMG and Beretta Scorpio TGT 'Victrix', and choose one, and then go for 'Buy Global' or part indigenisation to equip infantry battalions. The norm for MoD is to all blame for procurement delays on the military because it doesn't affect bureaucrats ensconced in air-conditioned chambers. Yet, the admission of MoD officials of procurement procedures being cumbersome after so many years indicates the continuing pathetic state of affairs. It is about time the red tape in MoD is cut.